Thursday, 8 March 2012

Specific Is Always Better

Before you read on, I want you to write down two lists:

First, what would you do if you suddenly had lots and lots of money - a EuroMillions style win?

Secondly, what things really annoy you?

Go on, then come back when you've done it.

My first list would start with...
buying a new house and a new car,
buying each of my children a house and putting some money in trust for them,
giving family and friends a hefty chunk,
giving to charity,
travelling the world especially the Far East and South America. (And Whitby. I want to go to Whitby.)

My second list would include...
a bluebottle that won't fly out of the open window,
train doors closing just as you arrive on the platform and then the train sitting there for ages,
going into town to do something then realising I've left the vital thing at home,
people watching me park the car (especially if they mime turning the wheel),
a pen running out in the middle of taking down an important phone number,
not closing the washing machine door properly so the load that was suppose to wash during the day hasn't,
people saying something is "very unique",
call centres who don't speak English,
banks phoning up to sell you something but first insisting that you pass their security checks (hey, you rang me, not the other way round) and
...I could go on, but won't.

Now, I'm going to make a guess that your first list matched mine fairly closely in spirit, if not actually those things. I'd also guess that your second list doesn't match mine at all, but you nodded at quite a few of my annoying things because you find them annoying too.

Let's face it, the first list is pretty boring because most people want that (although possibly not going to Whitby). The second list is more interesting because a) it's much more specific and b) we recognise those things.

When we're writing we have to be careful to write the specific, not the generic - about characters, locations, moods, whatever. Generic is dull and boring. Specific is fun, and readers make connections because they recognise themselves. So, always be specific and your readers will love your writing.


Alison Morton said...

How very true! I shut my eyes, put myself in the room where the scene is playing out and try to spot some little thing: a magazine open at an interesting page, crumbs on the table, a sweatshirt draped over the back of a chair. Or more dramatically, a drop of blood on a tiled floor...

Rhoda Baxter said...

I see what you mean. Specific is definitely more interesting.
I've never been to Whitby either. It's not that far away, so I intend to go sometime soon!

Emma Lee-Potter said...

Such good advice. And true of non fiction too. I say the same thing when I'm teaching feature writing to students. i.e. Say "red and blue," not "brightly coloured." Describe the way people look, don't just say they are "beautiful" etc.

Rebecca Leith said...

Very good advice. And you were right, all of the first list were on mine and I nodded, a lot, while reading your second list. I've been to Whitby, well worth it if you ever get the chance.

Lesley Cookman said...

I love Whitby. Oh - and if I won all that money I'd do all those things and stop writing.

Philip C James said...

Didn't you just love that couple that won €120 million on the lottery and issued a PR announcing they'd given €1M each to their 20 best friends - and if you hadn't heard from them you weren't one of the 20... Human Nature, eh!

You're right to be proud of this post, Sarah. An excellent and illuminating analogy and good luck on your quest for Whitby. Isn't it interesting, but not surprising, everyone's picked up on that specific item ;)

Sarah Duncan said...

Thanks, one and all!

It's not surprising that Whitby was mentioned, as it's the only specific thing on the first list (deliberately so, she hastens to add!).

Marina Sofia said...

Never thought of it like that - but what a clever way of making it clear to us! Like Miss World candidates telling us that they want 'World Peace' and other such vague ideals.